Blind Bargains

Thoughts on the BrailleNote Apex

Today, BrailleNote mPower users and the public at large received their first view of Humanware’s new breed of PDA devices. While many are quick to discount the Apex as overpriced, outdated, and meaningless, we can’t hardly blame Humanware for the new release. And while users are quick to scoff at the price, the machine brings some welcome competition to the blindness-specific PDA market which I’m glad to see.
The BrailleNote Apex includes many of the features mPower and other users have been requesting for a couple of years now. Built-in WiFi, Bluetooth, and 8GB of memory are included, all features previously available on the BrailleSense Plus. At just over a pound, the size rivals that of a PK and should be much more portable than the current mPower series. The addition of standard USB ports is a welcome addition.

There are many who will say this new device will become vastly outdated quite soon, if it isn’t already. For example, the USB 3.0 specification has been released, but is nowhere to be found on the Apex. 802.11N wireless is quickly becoming a standard, but the choice of the Windows CE operating system limits that possibility on the Apex as well. There is no eSATA port for higher-speed data transfers, common on many newer laptops. The included processor is already being replaced by a newer model by the manufacturer. Not to mention newer technologies like 3G and WiMax on are on the horizon.

But complaints aside, Humanware has scored a hit for those looking for a simple-to-use, menu-driven note taking system with a world-class GPS program and built-in Braille display. If you understand terms like eSATA or WiMax or are familiar with the USB 3.0 standard, the Apex probably isn’t for you. Humanware isn’t trying to capture the crowd of bleeding-edge techies who are seeking the absolute latest in technology, you know, the ones who are overly-negative about the Apex on Twitter and elsewhere. This group is only a very small amount of users of assistive technology. Most blind PDA users would be thrilled with a device that can connect to their wireless Internet connection, are just learning about the wonders of Bluetooth, and may or may not have a high-capacity SD memory card, now compatible with the new device.

For those who say that a netbook with a Braille display and a screen reader would be a more viable solution, you’re probably right in many instances. But this combination can’t be carried over your shoulder and kept in one piece. And suppose for a second if Humanware were to instead use an Intel Atom processor and run Windows XP on the Apex. Can you imagine the amount of tech support calls they’d receive from users who wonder why their machine is always crashing? Remember their target market and you’ll understand why they chose not to go this route.

Finally, while $6,195 is hardly a steal, and I would much prefer to see and support more affordable technology, put yourself in Humanware’s shoes for a second. Would lowering the price to $5,000 or $4,000 really sell that many more units? If you can’t afford a $6,000 PDA, you probably can’t afford a $4,000 PDA either.

In summary, while the Apex is probably not the apex of assistive technology, especially for tech-savvy users, it serves as welcome competition in the blindness-specific PDA marketplace and will command considerable consideration from VR counselors and users alike. And until a vastly cheaper and more portable solution is available, I can’t blame them.

Category: Articles
Displaying 4 comments.
MGD4Ever Thursday, 12-Nov-2009 6:54 PM ET:

all points well taken. I think the larger issue is that, in practically 2010 there shouldn't even be a need for a blindness PDA market. these companies should reallocate every research and development employee who works on blind-specific hardware to develop solutions for making off-the-shelf hardware accessible. there is absolutely no scenario in which I think it's a good idea for a blind person to shell out over six grand for a PDA. this is 2010 people, not 1995.

jadwiga Friday, 13-Nov-2009 06:57 AM ET:

Humanware can make purchasing the Apex easier by taking note of GWMicro's program to pay over time. If Humanware works more closely with state loan programs and such options and offers better trade in terms on mpower units, its high price may be somewhat easier for the non-agency sponsored blind individual to pay.

pyyhkala Thursday, 19-Nov-2009 6:26 PM ET:

My biggest complaint is that the Humanware BrailleNote Apex lacks a number of mainstream technologies that bring the blind in to full participation in society. Some of the key missing elements are an RSS and podcast reader, Twitter/Facebook tools, Exchange 2007 wireless email/calendar/contact syncranization, IMAP email, blogging tools, etc. Hopefully the device works wirelessly with Bookshare, NewsLine, and NLS. I'd also like to see Skype and Gmail chat support. The argument has been widely made that the device is presumably aimed at a non tech savvy user base. Just because a user doesn't know any better, is not a reason Humanware should be delivering out of date technology. They should be making the above web 2.0 tools easier to use for a non tech savvy person to bring them in to the modern methods used for communication. The Level Star Icon and Braille Plus are the only devices I am aware of that have solid RSS readers and the wireless access to NewsLine via Bookshare is great. You can sit in a Starbucks and download your newspapers from Bookshare/NewsLine, and download your RSS feeds and podcasts. I don't think many business professionals use POP3 email, and the protocol has many limitations, especially when you have multiple devices accessing the account. Again IMAP and Exchange 2007 were built with the idea in mind that you'd have multiple devices accessing the same email account. Computer, mobile phone, etc. Humanware by far is not delivering a compelling set of robust and modern software capabilities on this device. Just because "most people" don't "know any better," isn't a good reason to keep blind people in the dark ages of email and web 2.0 communication tools. I can't think of a similar mainstream PDA type device that does not have the features I described here. . These features are core and fundamental in 2009, not just nice to have things. I will say the device sounds sleek and lightweight, but by no means has core tools that a professional or student requires in 2009.

Blind Paladin Sunday, 07-Feb-2010 5:39 PM ET:

I must agree with the above comments. After the ATIA 2010 interview that JJ conducted with Humanware I reread this review and must say that although I agree one can't blame HW for its release one can certainly question their commitment to affordable adaptive technology. My hopes were highly raised after the release of the Stream, but since then I have seen loads of rubbish, the Breeze and now this being two examples. Is it nicer then the Empower? There is no doubt, but like with the PAC Mate there is no reason why not having to use wireless cards and CF cards is a "upgrade". I would love to instead see an AT company focus on providing an affordable Braille display that mere mortals could afford, and a continued focus on making mainstream tech accessible, rather then another blind ghetto product to suck the money out of the government's hands (as no person who isn't independently wealthy could afford this and if they were they would probably just buy a netbook and Braille display0).

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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